Chronicles of Love and Death is a wonderful synthesis of spiritual journey and profound human drama; a gripping portrait of an unique historical figure - part guru, part madman; a fascinating insight into the tantric practices of Tibetan Buddhism; an account of a love affair written with the page turning pare of thriller.
I found myself being rapidly drawn into a story in which spiritual aspiration and sexual love, 'crazy wisdom' teachings and black magic, the sacred and the profane are woven together into an utterly compelling tale.
This is a story unlike any you will have read before, a story which defies belief, all the more extraordinary because it is true.
Norma Levine has published two books on Buddhist themes: Blessing Power of the Buddhas, (1st edition Element Books, 1993; Brazilian edition 1997, reprinted in 2009 by Vajra Publications Nepal) and A Yearbook of Buddhist Wisdom, (Quest, USA, Harper Collins UK, 1996, German edition Barthe, 1997).
She has organised pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet and the hidden land of Pemako in Arunachal Pradesh (NE India), and written for some of the major London newspapers, The Observer, The Times, and The Telegraph.
She established a web based mail order business, Windhorse Imports in 1986 to provide Buddhist meditation artefacts to a growing community and sold it in 2003.
She has an M. Phil in drama and literature from the University of Toronto and completed a PHD thesis before escaping academic life to live in the book town of Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh borders, famous for its International Literary Festival. She divides her time between the UK and India.
It was in the Black Mountains where the border between wild mystical Wales and green England divides Hay-on-Wye that my life changed. The ancient mountains worn low with time were spiritually alive in a way I'd never experienced in the virgin wilderness of Canada where I was born. An uncanny light split through the black clouds of the Gospel Pass as though the voice of God was about to roar through. It was 1972. I was in my mid-twenties when I realised we are free to choose the life we live.
That there was a price to pay was not something I could know, not then.
In Hay everyone had dropped out of something. I decided to drop out of academic life and not to receive a Phd. in drama. Theatre interested me but the curtain on the stage of my life was pulling open abruptly. It was the time of gypsy wagons and exotic bohemians. The king of the self-styled gypsies was the television playwright, Jeremy Sandford, author of Cathy Come Home, who lived near Hay and travelled the open road in a gypsy caravan. Mark Palmer, whose mother was lady-in-waiting to the Queen, lived in a primitive cottage with his companion, a Somerset gypsy called Morris. It took half an hour for their blackened kettle to boil on the hearth but Roly, my boyfriend, and I enjoyed hanging out with authentic aristocracy. On market day Mark and Morris took the pony and trap to Hay, downed the local cider at The Three Tuns - a hobbit sized pub with yellowing adverts for babycham - and clip clopped back to their Welsh cottage through narrow lanes reeking of honeysuckle and wild rose.
In the mysterious way that things happened at that time, I stumbled upon a twenty-two foot long, two and a half ton showman's wagon made of mahogany with cut glass windows and mirrors, bow fronted cabinets, painted wooden solid rubber wheels, and a chrome plated, coal burning stove parked outside a mews at Swiss Cottage in London, and negotiated to buy it for seven hundred pounds. It had the name of the head showman on the letterbox - Mr Mellors. We transported it as far as the car park in Hay- on- Wye where it stayed while the locals gazed in wonder at it. The hill farmers with four-wheel- drive tractors kicked the hard tires and stared at the level of the storage boxes a few feet above the ground.
After a week of gutteral mutterings and high-pitched vowels, they decided it was sound enough to tow up the steep narrow mountain road to our impossibly romantic parking space on a hillside near a stream backing Hay Common. Mounting the summit of the steepest hill, its weight pulled the tractor backwards and my stately Edwardian dream home crashed into a soft bank, miraculously unhurt. Manouevring it into final position on the sloping hillside, it slanted dangerously without losing balance. Thus the wagon became a legendary landmark just down the road from the standing stones marking the ley lines of the fierce Black Mountains. Winter gales blew the door out of my hands when I went to fetch water from the stream.
My hair was wild and curly and I wrapped myself in a multi-coloured crocheted shawl over Afghani dresses or Victorian velvet blouses and jeans. Roly wore a Moroccan jalaba over a flannel collarless shirt and corduroy breeches held up by suspenders. On weekends we drove the Morris post office van to London where I sold trippy Moroccan glass bead necklaces on the Portobello Road. Roly played electric guitar with a Rastafarian group in South London, and worked occasionally as a carpenter.
We were among the first 'foreigners' to discover the self proclaimed Kingdom of Hay ruled by the eccentric book-king, Richard Booth. The town declared independence on April Fools Day 1977; with a drum roll parade through the streets, of ministers and courtiers, jesters and subjects. In King Richard's court was another April: April Ashley, the first sex change, known unofficially as Offa's Dyke.
King Richard was already a legend. He had married into the Yardley family briefly before buying up the local cinema, fire station, and Hay castle. He wandered around Hay looking befuddled, scratching his head and mumbling with his shirt tails hanging out, as if he had just got out of bed. He was not a businessman but a maverick with a passion for Hay, which beguiled and tantalized him like a woman who had got under his skin. Tales of his escapades were bandied around with wonder and amusement. One day in a Marx Brothers escapade he donned a dog collar and turned up as a vicar at Cheltenham Girls School to release the beautiful local vet's daughter from her sins. All this made great publicity and put Hay on the map but he didn't care about that. He did it because he was King of an eccentric independent kingdom.
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